Is your fireplace ready to keep your home cozy?

Autumn is a season beloved by many for its falling leaves, football, holidays such as Thanksgiving and Rosh Hashanah, and, of course, all things pumpkin and pumpkin spice. But, one of the most endearing elements of the fall is the chillier weather. Unlike the dreary moments of late winter and early spring, the gradually cooler temperature that rolls in late September and October is celebrated as “sweater weather.” It’s time to get cozy and start thinking about your fireplace, and fireplace care.

A fireplace not only brings warmth to your home; it also can be a source of relaxation that taps into our prehistoric roots. Researchers note that simply gazing at the flames of a fireplace can lower blood pressure. Fireplaces add a layer of comfort and the positive social experience of gathering by a crackling wood — or even just the glow of a gas fireplace flame. Enjoying these benefits is easier, however, when your fireplace is prepped and ready for the fall and the winter cold that follows.

First, what kind of flame is burning in your home?

There are several types of fireplaces, ranging from traditional wood-burning to electric. Gas fireplaces are increasingly popular as they need less maintenance and do not require buying, splitting and storing cords of firewood. With a gas flame, you get the warmth and convenience, but you miss out on the enticing aroma of burning hardwood and the satisfying crackle. Electric fireplaces have essentially no maintenance requirements other than that of any electric heater.

Fireplace maintenance for gas and wood fireplaces requires different approaches, with gas being easier to prep for the season. Since electric units are plug and play, we’ll focus on providing tips to get your gas and wood fireplaces ready for the season.

Wood-burning maintenance

You probably already know that wood-burning fireplaces can be a maintenance challenge. Starting and maintaining a campfire is fairly simple; all you need to do is follow some good camper advice and make sure that your wood is dry and you have sufficient airflow to encourage efficient combustion. While these basic elements apply to a wood-burning fireplace, the cozy glow of a crackling wood fire in the home has additional requirements for optimal performance and safety.

Cleanliness is the key to maximizing the enjoyment of your wood-burning fireplace, and the best time to clean is after the fireplace has been out of use for a while, such as right before the cold weather starts. Start the season with a good cleaning, removing any old ashes and clearing buildup on the fireplace glass doors and in the hearth.

While cleaning and using your fireplace, keep in mind:

  • Avoid scooping up bits of fire. Ashes can retain heat for several days after the fire has seemingly died out. Avoid using a vacuum to remove ash, except for cleaning when you know for certain that the ashes are cold — such as when getting the fireplace ready for its first use of the season.
  • Get your glass completely clean. Always use a lint-free cloth or newspaper to clean soot-caked glass fireplace doors. The lint is unsightly, but it also can catch fire and blacken during use, which can ruin your cleaning job.
  • Make sure you use the right wood. Lots of things burn, and homeowners are often tempted to toss large amounts of paper into the fireplace instead of the recycling bin. Fireplaces are designed to burn well-seasoned hardwood, not pizza boxes and piles of newspapers. Sure, small amounts of paper are effective fire starters, but loading your fireplace with anything other than well-seasoned hardwood risks flames escaping the fireplace into your home. Also, burning wet or green wood that has not been seasoned contributes to creosote buildup, which can make your fireplace less efficient and more dangerous.

Also, there is much more to a wood-burning fireplace than just the area where the fire smolders. The Chimney Safety Institute of America suggests having a professional chimney sweep clean the chimney and perform maintenance every year. It’s also helpful for maintenance, preparation, and everyday use to know how a damper and flue work. If you do not follow the right lighting procedures you can fill your home with smoke instead of cozy warmth.

A damper is a metal plate on a hinge that seals the fireplace when not in use. It must be opened before lighting to allow smoke to leave through the flue, which is the inner lining of the chimney. Before use, the flue should be slightly warmed to create an updraft.

Gas fireplace maintenance concerns

One the other end of the home fireplace spectrum, a gas unit is a lot easier to maintain and operate. However, it is not maintenance-free. While a wood-burning fireplace’s safety and effectiveness are closely tied to cleaning, gas fireplace cleaning is more about appearance, although there are some safety concerns to consider.

Before we get into maintenance, cleaning, and inspection of a gas fireplace, let’s consider how gas and wood fireplaces differ. Gas fireplaces burn natural gas — a clean-burning fuel that creates minimal soot and smoke. Although there are open gas fireplace units, many are completely enclosed in thermal glass. These glass enclosures are removable for cleaning and maintenance but often remain closed offering safety protections.

Since most gas fireplace units are enclosed, they are more efficient in providing heat in your home. A wood-burning fireplace radiates some heat but also sucks warm air out of your home. While you still have a flue and chimney with a gas fireplace, the clean-burning attributes of natural gas keep exhaust areas clean as well.

Although they are less messy and require less work, gas fireplaces should be checked annually by homeowners or a fireplace professional. Areas for inspection and/or maintenance include:

Glass doors and enclosures. The fireplace doors on most gas units are easy to remove. They also are prone to accumulating soot. While this might not affect the safety and functionality of the fireplace, it can create an eyesore in your home. Clean by removing the door units when they are cool, and lightly spraying with a glass cleaner or product designed for gas fireplaces. Be sure to only use a soft cloth, as scratched glass makes later cleanings more difficult. A microfiber cleaning cloth is the best choice.

The interior. Gas fireplaces do not create ash, but there can be an accumulation of dust. Some gas units include glowing fiber embers that add more depth to the flame. Carefully vacuum the interior of the fireplace to remove dust and debris, while not disturbing these embers.

The chimney or exhaust. If a gas fireplace is located on an exterior wall, it likely has a direct vent to the outdoors without an extensive chimney flue. These vents can be popular hiding spots for bird’s nests, wasps, and other pests. While cleaning the inside of your gas fireplace, check for evidence of pests such as bird nest material or dead wasps. Consider hiring an expert to clean the vent, also.

Gas line concerns. In most cases, your natural gas line requires very little maintenance. However, be aware of the signs of potential problems. If you smell natural gas during operation or any other time, contact a licensed professional. Other signs of a gas line problem include a hissing or whistling sound or a cloud of dust near the gas line. If you experience any of these situations, do not use the fireplace, and contact your utility provider, a plumber or HVAC professional immediately.

Maintenance frequency during the year, for wood and gas

The best practice overall for both wood and gas-burning fireplaces is to clean inspect, and test at the beginning of fall. But, just because your fireplace is operating well in October doesn’t mean your maintenance needs are paused until next year. Keep your wood-burning fireplace clean by only burning well-seasoned hardwood, and watching out for signs of creosote — a buildup that results from incomplete combustion and can lead to chimney fires.

Watch your gas fireplace closely during the season to ensure optimal performance. Clean the glass and interior during the cold weather, and check for debris in the vent.

If you follow these procedures and know when to contact a professional, your fireplace will shelter you from the cold from fall through late winter. Always remember to keep safety and cleanliness in mind, and enjoy some time by the fire this season.